Cutting his filmmaking chops
Fry up some Japanese culture, stir in a helping of Utah and what do you get? A Dave Boyle film.
By Brandon Griggs
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:08/18/2007 02:43:12 PM MDT
In his debut film, "Big Dreams Little Toyko," Dave Boyle plays Boyd Wilson, a clueless young entrepreneur who believes his fluency in Japanese will help him in the Japanese-American business world. Wearing blocky spectacles and an ever-present gray suit, Boyd presents himself as an English tutor and author of an instructional book on the "power of words." But his humorless demeanor and affected, Japanese-wannabe mannerisms turn people off.
"You're not Japanese!" one man tells him. "No matter how many times you bow when you speak, you'll never be Japanese!"
Boyle will never be Japanese, either. But his forays into Nikkei language and culture have been much more fruitful. At 25, he already has written and directed two feature-length comedies - both shot in Utah - featuring Japanese-American actors speaking a mix of English and Japanese lines. "Big Dreams Little Tokyo" played film festivals around the country and will likely hit theaters early next year. Its follow-up, "White on Rice," a romantic comedy about a Japanese-American family featuring James Kyson Lee of the NBC hit "Heroes," wrapped shooting in Salt Lake City last month.
The movies' subject matter seems unlikely coming from a white filmmaker who grew up in Arizona and has never been to Japan. But Boyle, who didn't go to film school and had no Hollywood connections before he started, is not a typical success story.
All about character: A pale, slender guy with geek-hipster glasses and shaggy brown hair - unlike Boyd, he doesn't slick it down with hair gel - Boyle could pass for a teenager. In person he is thoughtful, unassuming and a little shy. At first it's hard to imagine this polite, fuzzy-cheeked kid commanding dozens of cast and crew members on a movie set. But listen to him for a few minutes and it becomes clear that Boyle knows exactly what he wants.
"What makes me laugh the most are characters who are driven to do something that nobody else understands," he says. "Comedy for me really comes down to character. If you have the right characters and the right situation, the story and the jokes sort of write themselves." Not that Boyle writes many obvious jokes. His humor is sneakier than that. As he explains, "I'd almost rather make people smile than make them laugh."
Boyle has been making people smile since he was a boy in Tucson, where the creative youth invented stories about superheroes, performed skits for his parents and launched a neighborhood detective agency. He even established a "library" with books, written and illustrated by him, of course, that friends could "check out" and read.
"Our mom made a rule at the dinner table that Dave could only talk about things that were real," says older sister Megan Boyle, a cello teacher who lives in Provo. "He's kind of lived in his imagination for most of his life."
Field experience: By high school, Boyle was making animated shorts and doing sketch comedy shows with his friends. But his filmmaking career didn't take off until after he enrolled at Brigham Young University and served an LDS Church mission in the Japanese-speaking neighborhoods of Sydney, Australia. To target the right households, Boyle combed phone books for Japanese-sounding names - an experience that inspired Boyd's door-to-door salesman scenes in "Big Dreams Little Tokyo."
After his mission, Boyle returned to Provo, where he wrote the script for "Big Dreams Little Tokyo," hit up investors for financing and dropped out of BYU to make the movie. He cast mostly Los Angeles-based actors, with two major exceptions: Fearing he'd have trouble finding a young white actor who spoke fluent Japanese, Boyle cast himself as Boyd.
Second, he asked Jayson Watabe, one of his missionary companions, to play Boyd's roommate Jerome, an aspiring sumo wrestler who is rejected from a local sumo academy because he's "not fat enough." Watabe, who had no prior acting experience, didn't take his friend seriously at first.
"I thought we'd be playing around with a backyard video camera and then putting it on YouTube," he says. "I was shocked at how well it came out."
Boyle shot "Big Dreams Little Tokyo" on digital video for less than $200,000 at Salt Lake City locales such as Ken Sanders Rare Books, Ichiban Sushi and the Pagoda restaurant. The set operated on such a shoestring that the cast sometimes ran out of prop food; for one scene, Watabe had to gobble a mouthful of rice and then spit it out to be used in later takes.
Despite its low budget, "Big Dreams" has a professional look and an offbeat, sweet-natured charm. The movie premiered last November at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where Boyle promoted it by hiring 10 sumo wrestlers to stroll up and down Sunset Boulevard. Then, in a five-week flurry last spring, "Big Dreams Little Tokyo" screened at seven more film festivals.
"As a [festival] programmer, I see so many terrible films every year. And it really stood out," says Michael Lerman, who chose the movie for April's Philadelphia Film Festival. "For someone who has no formal film training, [Boyle] knows how to tell a story visually. He's really smart. He taught himself how to do everything. He went out on his own and raised all the money. And he knows how to shoot. It's a really solid first film."
No comparisons, please: Noting Boyle's obsessive characters and deadpan comic style, critics already have begun classifying "Big Dreams" alongside the work of Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums") and fellow BYU student Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"). Boyle likes those filmmakers but doesn't appreciate the comparisons.
"I hope I don't get compared with anybody. The only thing I have in common with either of them is that I have a dry sense of humor," he says. One of the reasons Boyle avoided film school is that he believes such programs produce filmmakers who derive their inspiration from other movies. "A lot of people fall into the trap of making movies that are pastiches of things they've seen already."
Nor does Boyle want to be lumped in with filmmakers such as Richard Dutcher ("God's Army") or Kurt Hale ("The Singles Ward"), whose films often are pitched at Mormon viewers. "I'm not reaching for a niche audience," he adds. "I'm trying to make movies that will speak to a lot of different people."
Despite good reviews from the English- and Japanese-language press, "Big Dreams" has yet to attract a distributor who will book the movie into theaters. But Boyle is still holding out for a limited theatrical release, which he believes will happen by early 2008.
What's next: In the meantime, he's turned his attention to "White on Rice." Boyle hadn't planned on making another Japanese-themed comedy, but he was so taken with actor Hiroshi Watanabe, who had a small role in "Big Dreams," that he wrote the new movie around him. Watanabe appeared in Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and has a wide-eyed innocence that makes you root for him onscreen.
In "White on Rice" Watanabe plays Jimmy Beppu, a childlike man in his late 30s who leaves Japan for America after his wife divorces him. He moves in with his younger sister, whose husband is not thrilled to have Jimmy as a houseguest. Things get more complicated when Jimmy falls hard for family friend Ramona (Lynn Chen), despite the fact she is dating Jimmy's co-worker and confidante Tim ("Heroes' " Lee).
"I play a 25-year-old indie musician who's reconnecting with his high-school sweetheart. We're all competing for the same girl, basically," says Lee, the Korean-born actor who plays noble Ando Masahashi on the blockbuster sci-fi show." "It's really a good script."
The budget for "White on Rice" is close to half a million dollars, which allowed Boyle to shoot on film for the first time. He shot the movie in five weeks, at landmarks such as the gleaming Salt Lake City Main Library, and hopes to finish editing by the end of the year before shopping it to film festivals. He doesn't expect to be done in time for Sundance, though.
And beyond that? Boyle would like to visit Japan with one of his movies. He'd also like to keep making internationally flavored films that explore themes of cultural identity. But that doesn't necessarily mean his future actors will be speaking Japanese. His next movie, he promises, "will be something totally different."